The Abject Failure of Sex-Positive Feminism: A Case Study

October 9, 2012

Tracy Clark Flory is a sex blogger for Salon. I first became acquainted with her writing in 2008, when she referenced Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both by Laura Sessions Stepp. That book was very instrumental in opening my eyes to hookup culture, and was one of the things that inspired me to begin blogging. Clark Flory’s essay In Defense of Casual Sex was my first introduction to the concept of sex-positivity as a political offshoot of contemporary, fragmented feminism. 

These books are just the latest result of the mounting abstinence movement, which, despite its religious roots, has recast its attack on “hookup” culture as secular, even feminist. The term “hooking up” — meaning anything from kissing to casual sex — can be traced back to the early ’80s, but only within the past few years did the hand-wringing really begin…Stepp spent years detailing so-called collegiate mating rituals — often lamenting a tendency among young women toward boozed-up hookups instead of cross-legged gatekeeping.

…Increasingly, young women are being told they are either respecting or exploiting themselves; they’re either with the “Girls Gone Wild,” sex blogger set or with the iron-belted and chaste.

Choose a side? No thanks. I’m a 24-year-old member of the hookup generation — I’ve had roughly three times as many hookups as relationships — and, like innumerable 20-somethings before me, I’ve found that casual sex can be healthy and normal and lead to better adult relationships…Hookup culture is not the radical extreme it is so frequently mischaracterized as in the media. 

[After attending a women’s college] I opened those other, um, metaphorical gates of mine. OK, screw the modesty: My legs, I opened my legs…I went through a dressing room phase of trying on different men to see how they fit. 

As far as I can tell, these choices don’t form a pattern, other than a refusal to really choose. I was like a college freshman filling out the Career Center’s job placement questionnaire, making an enthusiastic check mark next to every box; except, in my case, I was checking off men. 

…There’s nothing unusual about my experience…For all the anxiety about “hookup culture” the truth is that for many people older than 20, “hookup culture” will sound remarkably like, well, “college.” 

…I learned something from all of the men I dated. Sexually, I learned plenty about what turns me on. More important, by spending time in uncommitted relationships, what I wanted in a committed relationship became clearer — and it wasn’t amorous antagonism but a partnership that didn’t trigger self-protectiveness…Perhaps young women are putting feminist ideals of equality into sex by refusing shame and claiming the traditionally male side of the stud/slut double standard.

Reading that essay, I knew that I had met the enemy, the source of Grrrrl Power and Female Chauvinist Pigs, a snarky, brash, in your face creature that would be telling me to STFU for years to come. And yet, Clark Flory was not the worst of them. She doesn’t appear to be batshit crazy, or a confirmed hater of men. In a column about booty calls, she interviewed evolutionary psychologist Peter Jonason, expressing at least a smidgen of doubt:

TCF: A lot of what you’re saying is obviously very politically and philosophically … unpleasant. I think most of us have a desire to escape our basic biology, to evolve, to be better.

Jonason: As much as you want to escape your biology, there it is, in your face. Humans have the illusion that they can escape their biology, but we’re just like any other animal, the difference is our leash is longer. It appears that we have all this freedom to make these choices, but we really don’t.

Still, a year and a half later she defended casual sex with a vengeance in Casual Sex Backlash:

As I see it, young women have fully proved that we can have one-night stands, hear us roar – and maybe we’re beginning to also allow ourselves more nuanced feelings about our hookups…We can now acknowledge regret over a one-night stand, without being considered, or seeing ourselves as, forever ruined women; if there’s been a recent change in my generation’s relationship to casual sex, I suspect it’s that we’re relaxing our defensive posturing.

By January of 2011, then 27, Clark Flory seemed rather fatigued  by the effort of keeping things casual in Does Friends with Benefits Work? 

When you talk to people who have been there and done that — and even those who are continuing to do that — the response is overwhelmingly negative. As my own former “friend with benefits” put it to me, “I’ve been in so many of these situations and, basically, they work until they don’t.”…In his self-deprecating style, he made no secret of his undatability. He was prone to post-coital declarations like, “You’ll be done with me soon. I’m a drunken emotional mess!” …Only that was kind of the point: So was I. I wanted company, warmth and no danger of attachment. 

…Except that in reality there was. I actually liked him, quite a bit, as a human being…At some point I realized that, despite my insistence otherwise, I actually wanted those sorts of intimacies, only with an actual commitment.

Now a blogger of sexploits who wanted to chuck it all for a relationship, Clark Flory scrambled to put her history of hookups in the context of normal, even healthy, 20-something behavior in Men: The New Romantics? 

I’ve been trying to explain about my “hookup” generation for years now: 35 percent of respondents report having had a hookup turn into a long-term relationship. Coontz sees this as “a very good example of the decline of the [sexual] double standard.” She points out that during at least the first half of the 20th century, it was common for a man to say, “Anybody who would do that isn’t good enough for me.” She says, “People get so hysterical about ‘friends with benefits’ and ‘hookups’ but very often these are interim behaviors.”

When, earlier this year, I read Clark Flory’s Bringing Home a Porn StarI felt something like maternal concern even as I struggled to tamp down my revulsion. Oh, this woman’s poor mother!

I was at a neighborhood bar when in walked a man that I’d slept with before — virtually speaking. We had traded intimacies without ever having met. I grabbed my friend’s arm and whispered, “My favorite male porn star just walked in the door.” Seeing him in person, there was one thought on my mind: I need to sleep with him.

I asked my friend to tell him that I liked him and then ran and hid at the bar. Mid-sip, I felt a tap on my shoulder. “I hear you’re a fan of my work,” he said — and suddenly I was starring in my own personal porno, bad script and all.

There’s no need to go into great detail — do a Google search for “porn” and you’ll find an approximate representation of what followed between us. It’s exactly what I had breathlessly watched him do many times before, but this time it seemed mechanical and theatrical. Instead of being entertained, I was doing the entertaining, and I suspect he was too — but for whom, exactly? We were the only audience.

All of which is to say: It was like nearly every casual hookup I’ve ever had. Here were two strangers connected only by their fantasies of who the other was.

Afterward, he stood up, stark naked, and strutted around my room with his hands on his hips. He nodded as he circled, taking in the belongings of the woman he’d just fucked, pro bono. Then he clapped, “Well! I better be getting home now.”

Despite the emptiness of it, I felt a sense of accomplishment over my conquest. I mean, I slept with my favorite male porn star!…Sleeping with my favorite male porn star was thrilling and fun. It’s a memory that I occasionally turn to for private titillation — when YouPorn doesn’t do the trick.

Not long after, the whole charade came crashing down, as Clark Flory confessed she’d never gotten off in a single casual encounter. From Years of Faking:

Postcollege, I became a full-time reporter, blogger—and orgasm faker. I had strong feminist political inclinations, but I was also deeply afraid of male rejection; my intellectual ideals clashed with my personal insecurities…I chose performed enthusiasm over more authentic sexual experience…in the years that followed, I moved on to faking multiple orgasms.

Around this time, I wrote an essay titled “In Defense of Casual Sex,” about how hookups had helped me explore my sexuality—and they had. But it was exploration through the eyes of men: I was focused on how my partners saw me. I didn’t mention that I’d faked it during nearly all of my dalliances. It seemed embarrassing to admit, and personally inconsequential. I just figured that I was one of those women for whom orgasms are extremely difficult, but even without them sex was a physical rush. Which is not to mention what a blast it was to date or become otherwise involved with a rainbow array of men—from a Muay Thai kickboxer to a big-deal lawyer.

Clark Flory turned out to be a fraud. In championing and justifying her own sordid sexcapades, she had sought to romanticize her experiences as empowering and deeply satisfying. In truth, it was her need for ego validation and her inability to orgasm that characterized her sexual experiences, leaving her with considerable emotional wreckage.

This month Clark Flory signals that she is ready to be done with casual sex. From Who Needs Casual Sex?:

There’s little that could shock me on a first date (or “date,” heavy on the air quotes). Not dirty talk, not sex — not even non-verbal attempts at anal. One gent announced within a couple hours of meeting me that he really wanted to stick a candle in my butt.

But being given flowers? Whoa.

When my recent date showed up at my door, minimalist bouquet in hand, I imagine I looked like I’d seen a ghost — of courtship past…Sure, we could be found post-midnight pressed up against a storefront on a street populated by intoxicated 20-somethings, the minty taste of Fernet fresh on our lips — but we didn’t have sex that night. We got back to my house and managed to unintentionally push all the decorative pillows off my living room couch, wedge my shoe under a cushion and knock over the fresh vase of flowers, before he announced, “As hard as this is going to be, I think the perfect end to this date would be for me to call a cab.”

What a revelation.

Even my serious relationships have started as seeming one-night stands. A couple of drinks as friends, some kissing and then a bed. This is what so many women of my generation do: We claim the same freedom to pursue our desires as men. We embrace the fun of exploration, the thrill of abandon. Sex doesn’t threaten to brand or disgrace us — at least not in any way that we recognize or respect. We aren’t defined by our “number” — we might not even keep track of it.

Hallelujah for that.

But, yes, as I’ve gotten older, casual sex has lost some of the luster of freedom. It isn’t that I’ve forsaken the delights of no-strings flings, but rather that I’ve tired of hookup culture’s dictatorial reign over modern courtship. It doesn’t feel so free when it doesn’t feel like an intentional choice….I’ve often had no one but myself to blame — especially when going after boys literally wearing warning signs in the form of tattoos reading things like, “I am what I am” or “forgive me.”

Sometimes, tearing off your clothes is just a pathetic attempt at taking control of the uncontrollable: love. It took me a while to realize that I wasn’t always getting what I wanted from hookups. As a friend recently told me, “It’s a terror to put your heart on the line and ask for what you want. You don’t have to be naked to feel naked.” My M.O. has often been getting naked to not feel naked.

As a sex blogger, Clark Flory doesn’t have the luxury of hiding her past – any guy who chooses to date her is clearly cool with her Google search results. Now 28, her timing is perhaps perfect. If she’s lucky, she can step off the carousel and give monogamous commitment a whirl. 

Despite her best efforts, she has won an important victory against casual sex. No amount of sex, with or without orgasms, with men who don’t care to see you again, is going to fill the huge hole in your self-esteem. Clark Flory has shared more stories of rejection in her blog posts than anyone should endure, and they’re almost entirely self-inflicted. 

When one of the high priestesses of casual sex admits it’s a sham and a delusion, take her at her word. No doubt she’ll keep spewing the political talking points – Every woman should decide what’s right for her! Don’t be fooled – her misery may be found between the lines. If Mr. Right doesn’t work out, I shudder to think where Clark Flory’s career may take her next.